Twelve years ago, I began work on a long poem about a subject I’d tried dealing with in several novels, my experience while working in a welfare building in San Francisco in 1969. I decided to combine this idea with new material about a pogrom in Poland in which 1,600 Jewish men, women and children were murdered. The many narratives and characters required balancing techniques I’d learned in writing all those failed novels.
Winning the Pulitzer Prize had ended the rivalry, I thought. The poet in me was triumphant. I was never meant to be a novelist. But when I finally finished the book in the spring of 2013, my editor suggested calling this long poem “a novel in verse.” I protested somewhat but finally gave in; both my identities were too exhausted to continue the struggle.
It’s hard not to smile when I hear myself explaining to people that “The Wherewithal” is a poem that uses some novelistic techniques. The novelist seems to be taking all this in his stride. He knows that the poet got the book published and that the lines are broken into stanzas, not paragraphs. He’s even being, well, something of a gentleman about it. Forty-two years is a long time to struggle to do anything. And the poet is more than willing to share credit if credit is due. In fact, we are on our best behaviour. Maybe, after all these years, we’re finally learning to cooperate, or at least live like brothers.